Attraction of ancient Iranian arts

What attracts people to ancient Iranian art? What brings them to this exhibition to view objects made by unknown craftsmen far removed from us in time and space? What is it that moves collectors to buy “Iranian art,” sometimes at exorbitant prices? The answers to these questions are best given by the objects themselves.

Yet we should also try to identify the factors that seem to have created a fashion for the art of ancient Iran. Perhaps the attraction is in the subtle balance so often achieved between abstract shapes and their enlivenment by animal or human forms.

It could also be that since many of the objects preserved were made for personal adornment and personal use in life and death, they seem desirable for personal adornment to people of our modem age. Much of the jewelry, for ex- ample, could be worn today, when effective design seems more important to many customers than the value of the material employed, when bronze bracelets can be worn that would have found little acclaim a century ago.

Ancient bronze, now usually covered with a green patina, has a great attraction for modern art lovers and has contributed in no small measure to the liking for the bronzes of Lorestan and those of the so-called Amlash culture. In our hurried and harried life a work of ancient Iranian art may seem especially easy to live with because it pleases the eye without intruding too much upon our concern with other matters. The subjects of Iranian art are most often animals in quiet poses, standing, walking, or lying down with the legs folded under the body. Most frequently shown are the untamed creatures of nature, ibex and mouflon, and feline animals that we call lion or panther and leopard if they are spotted.

Bull and horse appear in groups of objects made by cattle- and-horse-breeding peoples. Humped bulls especially were represented by people of the south and southwest Caspian area; horses occasionally decorate cheek pieces for horse bits found in Lorestan.

All the animals, wild and domestic, were surely thought by the inhabitants of ancient Iran to have a meaning that transcended the mere animal. Religious texts, which could be used for interpreting animal and demonic forms, were not written down before the end of the pre-Christian era or even later; we shall therefore probably never be able to really understand the meaning of animal, and also of monsters and demons, in ancient Iranian thoughts.

We may point, for example, to the proud carriage of the ibex in an object — probably pre-Achaemenid — of unknown use. The animal stands motionless and tense —as one may observe the male ibex in the mountains of Iran — standing on a rock, silhouetted against the horizon. The small, snub-nosed head, the slender body and the long thin legs of the animal in this object are like those of a fawn. Thus the appeal, the grace and elegance, of the youthful animal is combined with the great horns of a mature buck.

The smallness of the object singled out for comment characterizes much of ancient Iranian art yet many of these pieces have an inherent monumentality that has often been noted. They are extensible to much larger proportions in photographic enlargements and also in our own memories. This is surely because the fine characteristic of an animal, such as this ibex, is achieved not by a faithful rendering the body details and surface textures, but rather by a strong outline dominated by the magnificent sweep of the horns. The ibex becomes an abstraction of animal forms into simpler geometric ones, which then combine a new for a highly effective pattern.